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Surviving Gluten-Free Holiday Travel

Wendy Cohan, RN


I've just returned from a week in California, visiting three sets of relatives, and enjoying a Thanksgiving meal for eighteen people.  It was a great experience seeing people we hadn't seen for many years in the beautiful mountains near Big Bear Lake.  We also spent time with family near San Diego, and as a special treat, went hiking in Torey Pines State Park.  After spending six days away from my own cooking and gluten-free kitchen, I arrived home no worse for my travels.  Here's how I avoided any gluten exposure.  I hope it will help some people who will be traveling over the Christmas holidays in the weeks to come.

I took Larabars with me for the airplane, and I could as easily have taken a small bag of  Ener-G foods pretzels.  I stuck with water or 100% juice for beverages on the plane.  My husband's family in San Diego tends to eat fairly healthfully, so I knew there would be lots of fresh fruit available, as well as ingredients for salads.  I ate a couple of pieces of fruit and a Larabar for breakfast, and had a cup of nettle leaf tea that I always bring with me.  My host had very thoughtfully purchased a loaf of Food-for-Life brown rice bread, so I enjoyed a piece of toast too, with sugarless jam.  For lunch, we made some beautiful salads with the bountiful southern California produce and creamy avocados, and had some corn chips and fresh salsa along-side.  For dinner, they decided to take us to "Soup Plantation", a chain restaurant similar to "Sweet Tomatoe".  I had a large salad full of vegetables and greens, and I was able to make my own dressing from rice vinegar and olive oil, in a little cup provided for that purpose at the salad bar - very convenient!  Even though the salad was huge, I felt like I needed some starch too, and the restaurant had a pile of freshly baked potatoes and fixings, so I picked a medium-sized one and added a little olive oil, and some scallions, and salt and pepper.  Delicious!

On the road the next day, we pulled off for lunch, and were lucky to find a great little sushi place where I had an Ahi tuna roll and some miso soup.  I know some miso does contain wheat, but this one did not, and I did not have any reaction to it.

When we got up to Big Bear Lake, I feasted on Martinelli's sparkling cider and some delicious rice crackers I had brought along, and had a few satsuma oranges to satisfy my sweet tooth.  The turkey did not contain gluten, and my host covered the turkey with foil, rather than use a roasting bag with flour in the bottom of it, as is her usual practice.  They did put butter under the skin before I could ask them not to, but they reserved a leg and wing for me that were left unbasted and unseasoned, but were still deliciously moist and tender. 

I went to the store early in the morning and bought fresh asparagus to make for everyone, and some garnet yams to bake for myself and my mother-in-law, who is also gluten-free.  I tossed the asparagus with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted it at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, after the turkey came out of the oven.  I used flour to make the gravy, but I could have used corn starch, but I felt that I had made enough modifications for myself and didn't want to be a nuisance.   My host had chosen to use a mashed potato product that contained dairy and other things I couldn't eat, so didn't feel the need for gravy anyway.  When the asparagus was done, I tossed most of it with balsamic vinegar, but left enough for myself without vinegar.  When the garnet yams were baked along side the turkey, I mashed them with a gluten-free/dairy-free margarine, a little honey, salt, pepper, and the juice of half a lemon.  I had made enough for myself and my mother-in-law, and there were yams left over for others to taste and enjoy too.

My mother-in-law and I both had a wonderful, tasty, colorful safe meal that didn't look skimpy, or all that different from anyone elses.  For desert, I had reserved a Larabar in the "pecan pie" flavor, and ate that with some hot cider, and two satsumas. Yum!

The next morning, I roasted a small delicata squash, and ate half of that for breakfast, with some chopped granny smith apple and a drizzle of honey.  I saved the other half in foil to eat the next morning on the way to the airport. 

So, home again, home again, with no tummy ache, no excessive bathroom trips, skin rashes, mouth ulcers, headaches, runny nose or brain fog.  Yeah!

While talking with relatives, I tried to gently inform without being too preachy, and will send a few people my book to read ("Gluten-Free PORTLAND - A Resource Guide").  Fortunately, most of our family members are in very good health, and I hope that they will stay that way for a long time!

Other options that we considered were using the internet to locate Trader Joe's and Whole Foods stores ahead of time, in the areas we'd be travelling in.  While that didn't prove necessary, if we had been going to an unfamiliar area, or the heart of the Midwest, instead of fairly health-conscious California, I probably would have done more planning with regard to stores where I could find gluten-free foods.  Another helpful circumstance was that no baking was done at the home - all the pies were purchased, and the home itself was brand new - that's one reason why we were there - to inaugurate the new "mountain home".  Only a few tablespoons of flour were used to thicken the gravy, and I made sort of a game out of having lots of people come over to taste it for me.  Use your own judgment when planning for travel over the holidays.  You know your family best, and what their habits and food preferences are likely to be.  It does help to seek the cooperation of your host ahead of time and not put them on the spot.

Because my host was nursing a broken ankle, and trying to fully outfit a brand-new home, and cook for eighteen, we rightly felt she had her hands full, and simply told her I'd fend for myself and not to worry about it.  Big Bear Lake has several large grocery stores, and buying what I needed was not a problem. 

Interestingly,  I asked if the Von's had a gluten-free section where I could pick up some snacks, and was told no.  I was told the same thing at the Stater Brothers across the street, but I checked out the area where they keep some low-carb and diabetic foods, and found a great selection of Larabars, natural gluten-free fruit leathers, and the brand of gluten-free rice milk I drink, and a few other treats.  So, don't give up hope!  Sometimes even the employees are stumped by gluten-free questions.

Remember that when in doubt, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables are your best gluten-free options. 

Happy Holidays!


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